Judging them by their FIFA World Ranking, you might view Paraguay as outsiders for the 2021 Copa América. They’ve got the third-worst ranking (35) of any CONMEBOL team, besting only Ecuador and Bolivia.
Paraguay occupy a unique position in CONMEBOL. They carry expectations based on their historical standing in Copa América. Only South America’s ‘big three’ (Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil) have won this competition more than Paraguay, while Los Guaraníes La Albirroja have competed in the Copa América final more than any other non-big three nation.
In recent decades, Paraguay’s Copa América performance has been nothing to write home about. They failed to go beyond the quarter-finals in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 2010s, they fared better, finishing second in 2011 and making it to the semi-final in 2015, while they took eventual winners Brazil to a penalty shootout in their 2019 quarter-final.
For the first Copa América of the 2020s, they shouldn’t be written off, as they’re currently undefeated in 2022 World Cup qualification and if they can get their most exciting talent – like Miguel Almirón of EPL side Newcastle United and Ángel Romero of Argentinian Primera División side San Lorenzo – performing to their best, there could be cause for some optimism amongst Paraguay supporters.
In this tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, we provide analysis of how Eduardo Berizzo’s squad and the tactics he’s likely to use in this tournament, based on how they’ve been performing since the former boss of La Liga sides Celta de Vigo, Sevilla, and Athletic Club took over at Estadio Defensores del Chaco in 2019.
Our predicted 23-man Paraguay squad
Gustavo Gómez (c)
Ángel Cardozo Lucena
Alejandro Romero Gamarra
Under Berizzo, Paraguay have primarily lined up with either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. In their most recent outings, the 51-year-old has played a 4-3-3, so that’s how we predict Paraguay will line up for Copa América. Even when they’ve used the 4-3-3 recently, their shape has looked more like a 4-2-3-1 at times in defence, as we’ll discuss later in this tactical analysis.
Figure 1 shows our predicted first XI for Paraguay this summer, based on the quality of players available, their form during the 2020/21 season and Berizzo’s recent squad selections. Antony Silva is Paraguay’s number 1 and we predict he’ll remain that for this summer’s tournament. He’s been a regular at club-level this season and he played the entirety of Paraguay’s last three competitive games.
Paraguay’s back-four is likely to have Alberto Espínola at right-back, Santiago Arzamendia at left-back, team captain Gustavo Gómez at right centre-back, and Júnior Alonso at left centre-back. Berizzo has been keen to have a left-footer at left centre-back and a right-footer at right centre-back with Los Guaraníes La Albirroja, and the commonly-played Alonso-Gómez duo provide that.
Espínola featured at right-back in three of Paraguay’s four undefeated competitive games in 2020 and played an important role. Other right-back options include Iván Piris and Jorge Moreira, both of whom have more international caps than Espínola, however, with Moreira only recently recovering from Coronavirus, it may be too soon for him to be in the starting XI, and given how Espínola performed in Paraguay’s latest competitive games, it may be his spot to lose right now. Left-back Blas Riveros is sidelined with a knee ligament injury and as a result, Arzamendia is Berizzo’s clear left-back option and should suit his tactics well.
For the holding midfield position, we feel Andrés Cubas of Ligue 1 side Nîmes Olympique may be Berizzo’s best option. He’s played for Nîmes consistently during 2020/21, he’s quick and aggressive off the ball, while he’s also got good long passing quality. As for the 8s, we predict that Gastón Giménez and Mathías Villasantí will take these places. Giménez, of MLS side Chicago Fire, would provide a box-to-box presence and likely drop slightly deeper than Villasantí in the defensive phase, while Villasantí will be more attacking and sit slightly higher, especially in the defensive phase. This trio would fit Berizzo’s tactics and provide balance to Paraguay’s midfield. Other contenders for a place in Berizzo’s midfield include Richard Sánchez, Ángel Cardozo Lucena, and Jorge Morel.
Lastly, Paraguay’s front three will likely consist of Almirón on the right, Ángel Romero on the left, and Darío Lezcano in the centre. Romero and Almirón are two of Berizzo’s best players. Paraguay will rely heavily on this duo’s creativity, so provided they’re fit, they’ll have a place on either wing this summer.
Paraguay’s main centre-forward options are Antonio Sanabria, Darío Lezcano, and Raúl Bobadilla. Lezcano has played more league minutes than Bobadilla and Sanabria this season, while he’s also been favoured over the other two in Paraguay’s recent competitive games, and we give him the edge over the others.
Figure 2 shows that the age distribution amongst Paraguay’s most regularly-played men is quite healthy. The majority of their key players sit within the ‘peak’ range (24-29), including the centre-back duo, Almirón, and Ángel Romero.
Plenty of players also sit in the ‘experienced’ range (30+). These players should provide valuable experience, with some of them having been part of relatively successful Paraguay squads in the 2010s. while they’ve got five players sitting in the ‘youth’ range (23-), which is fairly positive for Paraguay’s future. They’re a team largely at their peak, with plenty of room still to grow, which bodes well for their chances of performing to their best at this tournament and future tournaments.
Figure 3 shows us this team’s percentile rank in key offensive areas over the last calendar year. To summarise this, Paraguay are a heavily possession-based team. They are not direct with the ball, they tend to play lots of short passes, and they play lots of backwards and lateral passes, biding their time to create openings before progressing upfield.
Paraguay take lots of shots per game, but they take a lot of long shots and don’t get the ball into the penalty area much. Additionally, they don’t play many crosses, preferring other methods of breaking into the opposition box, such as dribbles and through balls.
While Paraguay take lots of shots, their high volume of long shots reduces the overall quality of their attempts at goal and that, combined with the fact that they don’t manage to break into the opposition penalty area much, means they don’t tend to create many high quality chances.
We see Berizzo’s side during the build-up phase here in figure 4. With the ball at the feet of the goalkeeper, the two centre-backs split either side of him, while the full-backs push out wide. Meanwhile, the holding midfielder sits centrally, but enjoys freedom to shift towards the left or right.
A diamond is essentially created by the holding midfielder, centre-backs, and goalkeeper in this situation. At the same time, Paraguay’s 8s sit ahead of the holding midfielder, essentially in the same vertical line as the centre-backs. They form a central triangle with the holding midfielder and a wide diamond with the holding midfielder, full-back and centre-back.
This shape makes it easier for Paraguay to play lots of short passes because of the diamonds and triangles that are formed, as they give every player plenty of passing options – usually at least three. Berizzo’s side will take the furthest forward short passing option if possible. For example, if the ball carrier can pass to the end of the triangle/diamond closest to the opposition goal, then they will. However, they spend the majority of their time trying to forge a clearer opening through lateral passing.
As Paraguay move upfield, they often form a diamond between the centre-back, full-back, winger and central midfielder. We see an example in figure 5. The triangle that forms between the central midfielder, full-back and winger is a key part of Paraguay’s ball progression.
If Paraguay can progress through the centre of the pitch, via the midfield trio, they will, but the opposition typically guard central midfield firmly, so it’s common to see Paraguay’s centre-backs forced out wide to the full-backs during build-up, instead of to the 8 – the furthest forward short passing option.
The opposition’s press often picks up when the ball is played out wide, but Paraguay try to use the fact that they will often be forced out wide to their advantage by creating this wide diamond/triangle and overloading the opposition out wide. By doing so, the full-back has plenty of passing options while being pressed aggressively and doesn’t need as much time to consider his next move.
Paraguay’s full-backs have a key role in ball progression as the centre-backs are often forced to play through them. This is via passes and via forward runs – both on the ball and off the ball. In figure 6, we see an example of a common run that Paraguay’s full-backs make. We frequently see them lay the ball off to the winger before underlapping, essentially doubling up on the opposition full-back, forcing him into a dilemma over who to follow. Paraguay’s full-backs also often make overlapping runs, it’s generally more common to see them underlapping though, with the winger out wide and the full-back attacking the half-space.
Paraguay commit a lot of men forward in attack. As well as their attacking full-backs, at least one of their two 8s will actively try to find space in between the lines, like the wingers. In figure 7, we see the wingers in the half-spaces and one of Paraguay’s two 8s in the 10 position, with the other not far behind.
As mentioned earlier, Paraguay’s entries into the opposition box often come from dribbles or through balls and to achieve this, they try to exploit space between the lines. At Copa América, expect to see them committing plenty of men forward to try and overload the opposition backline and get men on the ball in space between the lines. They’ll try to find these players via short passes and their offensive shape will be set up to provide their deep-lying passers with plenty of options to make this easier.
In figure 8, we see Paraguay’s percentile rank in key defensive areas over the last calendar year. To summarise what this tells us, Paraguay are very active off the ball, making their fair share of recoveries inside the final third, as well as plenty of recoveries inside their own third. Berizzo’s side win a relatively average amount of their defensive duels.
Paraguay don’t try to engage in many aerial duels, and that’s by design. Their team isn’t packed with lots of physically imposing players and they try to avoid aerial duels where possible. This is smart, as their poor aerial duel success rate highlights how they don’t perform very well in this area when they are forced to engage in aerial duels. Paraguay’s aerial ability is a weakness in their game and it would be smart of their opponents to exploit this in the summer, especially as they’re good at defending on the ground via their aggressive pressing.
As mentioned in the previous section, many teams will generally prioritise preventing their opponents from playing through central midfield. Paraguay are no different in this regard. In figure 9, we see an example of Paraguay’s press. Off the ball, their shape gets more horizontally compact, with the wingers sitting slightly closer to the 8s.
Their 8s retain access to the opposition’s holding midfielders – with just one usually pushing up this far if the opposition are playing with just one holding midfielder, making their defensive shape into more of a 4-2-3-1 – while they form a diamond around the opposition holding midfielder/ball-near holding midfielder if there are two, which we see here. The wingers retain access to the opposition’s full-backs in this phase, while the centre-forward leads the press.
Paraguay’s centre-forward won’t press the opposition’s centre-backs aggressively when they receive a forward pass, like one from the goalkeeper, which happened just before this image. The opposition’s right centre-back received the ball and the striker held his ground, keeping himself close to the holding midfielders and ensuring that central progression was impossible. As that player passed the ball laterally to his central defensive partner, the striker sprung into action, pressing aggressively and getting in between the ball receiver and his central defensive partner, ensuring that he couldn’t pass the ball back.
By doing so, the striker helps his team to cut the pitch in half, to force the opposition to play the ball out wide, where Paraguay will be more aggressive with their pressing, with the benefit of the opposition having a smaller area of play to use, and set up central pressing traps, should they manage to play out from this position into the centre.
We see another example of Paraguay’s pressing in figure 10. Just before this image, Paraguay successfully prevented the opposition from building through the centre again, forcing the opposition’s right centre-back to play out to the right-back. As this player received the ball, Paraguay’s left-back began closing him down, while a pass into the ball-side central midfielder was left somewhat open.
This is an example of the type of central pressing trap that Paraguay commonly set up during this phase. As this central midfielder receives the ball, Paraguay’s central midfielder and winger press aggressively. They can force turnovers through these pressing tactics, but there is also risk involved, as if the opposition are quick to pass and move, they can beat Paraguay’s press and play through them via the centre by making triangles like the one we see in figure 10, so this is something for Paraguay’s opponents to be aware of and potentially exploit.
In transition to defence, Paraguay generally counterpress aggressively. We know they play lots of short passes and as a result, many tend to be quite close to one another to make those short passes easier. This helps them to keep possession but it also makes counterpressing easier should the opposition intercept a pass, due to the positioning of their players. Should they get intercepted, the opposition will likely be surrounded by Paraguayan shirts, who will immediately turn to hunting the ball off that player, acting similar to how they do when the ball is played into their pressing trap as we analysed in the previous section.
As mentioned previously, however, Paraguay tend to commit plenty of bodies forward in attack and while this helps with breaking into the opposition’s box, it can also work against them if the opposition manages to evade their counterpress and break away.
In figure 11, we see how Paraguay’s offensive tactics can leave them short on numbers at the back and vulnerable to counters. We saw earlier that both full-backs get forward at times, and while on these occasions at least one of the 8s will ideally err on the side of caution and sit deeper, that’s not always enough to prevent the opposition from punishing them on the counter.
Should the opposition break Paraguay’s press on the counter, they can create a 3v3 scenario like the one we see in figure 11 versus Paraguay’s centre-backs and holding midfielder. Clearly, Paraguay’s remaining defence here lacks width, and this can be exploited, especially by fast opposition attackers, so this weakness is something for Paraguay’s opponents to keep in mind this summer.
As for transition to attack, Paraguay rely heavily on their attackers’ dribbling quality, particularly the wingers, 8s and full-backs. In figure 12, we see one of Paraguay’s central midfielders making an interception just outside of his side’s box. This player is a good dribbler who can carry the ball upfield successfully, and he’s given the freedom to do that within Paraguay’s system.
As play progresses into figure 13, we see that this player has carried the ball into the opposition’s half from where he intercepted it, evading challenges and garnering support from teammates around him. As a result, he’s put his team in a better position than they were before he made his interception. As we know from our prior analysis, Paraguay don’t have a great aerial threat in their squad, so don’t tend to opt for long balls in these types of situations. They’ve got some very tricky dribblers, however, and they’re capable of quickly putting the opposition in a bad position, like this, if given space to run into, which they’ll often have in transition.
If a player who’s not as good of a dribbler makes the interception for Paraguay or if he doesn’t have space to carry the ball upfield himself, it’s common to see a through ball quickly played out wide to a winger or overlapping full-back, as was the case in figure 14.
Paraguay’s wingers and full-backs are always alert to their side’s defensive actions and are always ready to burst forward as a turnover occurs. By doing so, they make themselves immediate passing options should the ball-winner opt not to carry the ball themselves.
Figure 15 highlights some key statistics for Paraguay’s attackers. Firstly, let’s use these two graphs to compare Paraguay’s three main centre-forward options – Sanabria, Bobadilla, and – our pick for the starting XI – Lezcano. Looking at the left-sided graph, we see that Bobadilla takes more shots per 90 and more touches in the box per 90 than the other two options, with Sanabria and Lezcano returning very similar numbers in this area.
Looking at the right-sided graph, with Bobadilla taking more shots, it’s no surprise that he’s also got a greater xG contribution than Lezcano and Sanabria, the latter of whom has the lowest xG contribution of the three. However, all three players’ actual goal contribution rate is around the same level, indicating that Bobadilla tends to be fairly wasteful and Paraguay need a more clinical centre-forward, especially as Bobadilla has failed to score in any of his 13 club appearances this season.
Lezcano provides more of a presence inside the opposition box than Sanabria, while he’s also got a greater xG contribution than the Torino man, along with similar actual goal contributions. Paraguay don’t spend much time in the opposition box, so perhaps Lezcano could help them in this regard, while they’ve also got a relatively low xG per 90, and Lezcano has the potential to make more of a difference in this area than Sanabria, though the margins are fine between those two players.
We also see numbers for Ángel Romero, who we predict will start at left-wing for Paraguay, in these graphs. Looking at the right-sided graph, we see that Romero has the second-best xG contribution of any player listed here, trailing only Bobadilla, but he’s converting these high quality chances into actual goals and assists more than Bobadilla, with his xG contribution and actual goal contributions almost matching up. Romero is in a very positive position on this graph, which highlights his quality in the final third and his important role in this team that needs a creative spark and risk-taker to turn their high possession into high-quality chances.
Figure 16 highlights some key statistics for Paraguay’s midfielders, with the notable exception of Gastón Giménez, for whom there was a lack of data. The left-sided graph tells us about the midfield ball progressors that Berizzo has available to him for Copa América. Holding midfield could be important for Paraguay in this regard, and two players who we’d like to highlight as potential options for that position, outside of Cubas, are Ángel Cardozo Lucena and Jorge Morel.
These are two viable options for Paraguay’s holding midfield position purely based on their ball progressing ability, however, Cardozo Lucena would be more familiar with an 8 role than a holding midfield role, which is also an option based on his ball progressing quality. Morel is familiar with playing in holding midfield and represents a good midfield ball progressor, so it may be wise for Berizzo to make him part of his plans for this summer’s tournament.
However, it’s worth remembering that a lot of Paraguay’s ball progression comes via the full-backs and even the wingers when they drop to carry the ball upfield, while patience and safety on the ball will be highly valued during build-up. As a result, ball progression may not be the be all and end all for Paraguay’s holding midfielders and knowing how much Cubas provides off the ball as a mobile defensive midfielder, he may still have a place in the starting XI.
As for the right-sided graph, this says more about Paraguay’s midfield creators. If Ángel Romero were on this graph, he would be sitting just above Alejandro Romero Gamarra. Like Ángel Romero, Romero Gamarra performs very impressively in these numbers, but unless Paraguay play with a 10, it may be difficult to find a place for him in the starting XI, though he could represent an exciting bench option for Berizzo.
Both Ángel’s twin brother Óscar Romero and Paraguay’s star Almirón perform very well on this graph too, highlighting their creative quality, with those players likely to be an important part of Berizzo’s squad, while Sánchez also puts up some very impressive numbers here, outperforming Villasantí, who has been playing in the 8 position frequently for Paraguay of late. Should Sánchez continue to perform at this level, then he may well end up ousting Villasantí from the starting XI.
Figure 17 highlights some key statistics for Paraguay’s defenders. Firstly, the left-sided graph indicates how well these players do at regaining possession. Paraguay’s full-backs, in particular, stand out for their ball-winning abilities. Left-back Arzamendia and right-back Espínola both sit in impressive positions on this graph, while right-back Piris also performs impressively in terms of PAdj interceptions and successful defensive actions per 90.
Paraguay’s full-backs are likely to get engaged in defensive duels often due to their aggressive role within Los Guaraníes La Albirroja’s press, so they may have to put up numbers like this in Copa América and it bodes well for their defensive role within Berizzo’s tactics that they do make so many successful defensive actions and interceptions.
The right-sided graph tells us more about the ball-progressing ability of Paraguay’s defenders. Riveros ranks very impressively in terms of his progressive runs here, which would make him a great fit for Paraguay’s offensive tactics, but due to his injury, he’ll be out of commission for this summer’s tournament.
Luckily for Berizzo, he has other good full-back options, with left-back Arzamendia and right-back Espínola also putting up some impressive numbers in terms of their ball progression – particularly their progressive runs. We know that Paraguay rely on their full-backs in build-up, so these figures are very promising for their chances of successfully fulfilling their offensive role.
It’s worth noting that left centre-back Alonso ranks very impressively here in terms of his progressive passing, while right centre-back Gómez is less impressive in terms of his on-the-ball quality. As a result, expect Paraguay to try and focus more of their build-up through the left centre-back than the right centre-back. If teams are aware of this, they could try and cut off passes to Alonso, pressing him more aggressively and forcing play through Gómez, which could hinder Paraguay’s build-up.
We’ve chosen to highlight Ángel Romero as Paraguay’s best performer ahead of this tournament and figure 18 highlights some of the playmaker’s key qualities – his dribbling, high-quality chance creation, through ball quality and defensive work-rate.
Paraguay will generally be very patient on the ball, with the aim of slowly but surely creating openings for players like Romero and Almirón to receive between the lines and be the calculated risk-takers, carrying the ball into a shooting position or playing a teammate into a shooting position. Romero has been more threatening than Almirón or any other Paraguayan player in this regard of late, as we established earlier in this tactical analysis piece and as is evident by the fact that Romero was Paraguay’s top-scorer in competitive games in 2020, netting four goals in their four competitive games.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
As mentioned at the start of this piece, on paper, Paraguay are outsiders for this tournament and shouldn’t really progress beyond the quarter-final, however, they performed quite well in Copa América in the 2010s and have an impressive record in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification, so recent form suggests that they shouldn’t be overlooked.
How far they go in this tournament will largely depend on luck of the draw, but they certainly have the quality to progress beyond the group stage, at which point anything can happen in knockout football. Paraguay have proven themselves to be a difficult team for even the toughest of sides to beat in recent years, so we feel that if they can keep their key players fit, a run to the semi-final is certainly on the cards and we back them to achieve that, though it certainly isn’t a given and would be made much easier by avoiding one of the ‘big three’ in the quarter-final, should they make it there.